Interview: Indigenous Food Knowledge
Mandy Bayha and Andrew Spring
Mandy Bayha is the Director for Culture, Language and Spirituality for the Délįnę Got’įnę Government in Délįnę, Northwest Territories, Canada.
Andrew Spring is the Associate Director of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.
In early 2021, Mandy Bayha joined Andrew Spring via Zoom for a conversation about the importance of traditional knowledge and youth engagement for the Sahtúot’įnę people. That conversation was recorded and produced into an episode of Handpicked: Stories from the Field, a research podcast that features the voices of researchers, community partners, and food system practitioners working toward more sustainable food systems. The interview has been edited for length and clarity and reproduced here.
The full transcript and audio of this interview, as well as show notes and teaching resources, is available on the Handpicked website (Season 2, Episode 3).
Andrew Spring (AS): Can you tell us about Délįnę?
Mandy Bayha (MB): Yeah, Délįnę is a small community, about five to six hundred people, on the shores of Great Bear Lake, which is about five hundred and forty kilometers north of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. So, it’s a very tiny, isolated community and the only community on the shores of Great Bear Lake. Great Bear Lake is a little under 32,000 square kilometers, and the Sahtúot’įnę people, the people of the ‘Sahtú, are the only people that have inhabited this area. It’s a pretty great community that is surrounded by vast wilderness, a beautiful lake and nestled right in the Arctic Boreal. The population is predominantly Dene.
The only way to access the community is to fly in, aside from the winter road that opens for only about a month in January or February. The only other way to get into the community is to drive to Wrigley and boat up the Mackenzie River and then up the Bear River to get here. The cost of living [in Délįnę] is very high because everything is fly-in-only, and so the winter road is a lifeline to the community.
AS: Can you tell us about Délįnę’s food system?
MB: Our environment is very clean, sustainable, and we still harvest a lot of our food from the land. We’re able to fish all year round for many different species of fish—lake trout is a major source of fish for us, but we also fish for cisco, whitefish, and others, but those are the main ones that we fish for all year round. Our hunters also harvest caribou, moose, and recently muskox for the community. We have an abundance of wildlife that we’ve had relationships with for forever. Our hunters and harvesters are very well connected to the land and know where and how to harvest certain animals in different seasons. It’s just a way of life and it’s always been this way. We can supplement our traditional diet with novelties from the Northern Store, the co-op, and the grocery stores, the things that get flown into the community. But again, our cost of living is so high and the food isn’t always very great. We don’t really have a great selection of produce and there’s a lot of preserved or dry goods, but it’s not super healthy. So, we’re able to balance that with the food that we harvest on the land.
AS: Are there costs associated with traditional foods that are also kind of prohibitive? Have you seen a rise in those costs recently?
MB: There are a few things that are becoming barriers to harvesting traditionally, like the price of fuel and gas, because we’ve moved away from traditional modes of transportation like dog teams to snowmobiles if we’re traveling far away from the community. Also, not very many people can afford to buy brand new skidoos or sleds or tools that they can use to harvest. The cost of maintaining equipment or tools to go harvesting can also be a barrier for some. And also, a disconnection from traditional practices, and the lack of awareness of where to travel, how to travel, and connection to hunting and harvesting practices is also another barrier.
We’ve sort of adapted over time with this nine-to-five lifestyle, it’s really kind of now become an obstacle for a traditional economy or livelihood. So, I see that a lot in my work as the Director for Language, Culture, and Spirituality. Now, one of the things that I’m promoting a lot is that we need to make space. We need to make space for language, which we need to make space for our culture. We need to make space for our livelihood. Our nine-to-five jobs—the ways that we make a living—and the ways that we accumulate money for that living isn’t really, they’re not really mixing [with traditional ways of living] because one is not making space for the other. So, it comes back to colonialism. It comes back to assimilation. And so, this is where we need to really focus our attention to kind of create a balance because we do need one and the other. So [we’re asking] questions about how can we make a living with a traditional economy? How can we combine the two? And that’s a question that we really do need to explore and look at if we want our traditional economy not just to survive, but to thrive. We need to make it an option for young people to look at it as a way of supporting themselves as a career path, as a way to have security for their families and themselves. If not, we’re going to lose that.
AS: The COVID-19 pandemic exposed some of the cracks in our food systems. Can you tell us about what happened in the early days of the pandemic in Délįnę?
MB: As it was everywhere, I think it was a shock to everyone, but it was a really interesting scene here in Délįnę. Everything just stopped and the direction we got from our leadership was to go back to the land. So, we understood immediately that going back to the land, back to our traditional territories, people who have cabins and homes out in their traditional territories away from Délįnę would have had a wonderful place to go. But there were a lot of people that didn’t go anywhere. And these were the people that didn’t have access to their traditional homes, their traditional lands, or, you know, people that didn’t have cabins out on the land. And so, a lot of them were stranded in the community and were still dependent on food from the store. We have services in the community, we have stores, we have health centers, we have all of these things, and so these were the senses of security that people were dependent on that were stuck in the community. Now, that became pretty unstable with the pandemic because when things started becoming stressed in the urban centers of Canada, these are the places where, you know, if anything happens in your neck of the woods, it impacts us greatly because this is where we access things that are flown in. So, groceries from a store, medical supplies, even the employees, even the nurses at the health center as well as the schools. All of these people come from the south and they are the teachers and the nurses and the RCMP members. All of a sudden, we became really aware that those were more false senses of security than actual security, when push came to shove. And we’ve always known this because we’ve been saying this for a really long time, that these services and the way that things are set up systemically are actually impacting our health negatively. But the mask just came off and it became very obvious and evident to us that, oh, no, we can’t depend on these things when, you know, something like this happens. And so, here we began to really look at the demographic that stayed behind and ask, why didn’t they go back to the land? Why didn’t they go back to these practices? And these are the same people also that we need to help the most in our community—they are the most vulnerable in the community as well. So, we have young parents, single parents, elderly people were also included in this demographic. What we realized when we’re looking at that demographic and the “whys” and the “hows” is that it was a few things. Either they didn’t have access to their traditional lands, or they didn’t have homes or cabins, or they didn’t have the equipment—the skidoos, whatever it was— or transportation to get there, or all three. And in some cases, especially with the younger people and the younger parents, they lacked also the skill and the ability to go out and survive if they had to.
AS: It sounds like the pandemic really brought existing issues to the forefront. How was that kind of a call to action for you personally?
MB: Well, it really actually justified and kind of basically gave the ammunition for the work that we’ve been doing and for like all Indigenous people, really, in Canada, what we’ve been saying, what the Land Defenders have been saying and the Water Protectors. And the huge pushes in conservation like this, I hope, make it obvious and known that we do need to take care of our water. We need to take care of the land. We need to take care of each other. We need to be dealing with each other based on reciprocity—“What’s good for you?” and “What’s good for me?”—and these are all very basic, very fundamental values of Indigenous people. And it turns out that those are the values that were the answer to surviving a pandemic globally together.
What also happened was that “pause” gave us the ability to kind of spring into action and, where there wasn’t space for a certain traditional economy before, there all of a sudden was all the space. There was time to also put these plans into action. But in the community, what it really did was give us space and time to come back to what was really natural and inherent to us and refamiliarize ourselves with why we were doing all of the things we were doing to begin with. Why self-government was important, why conservation was important, why all of these things meant anything. And it was that time we got to spend with our family, that time we got to spend on the land, that time we got to try to help people to reconnect if they needed to or access these things if they needed to. In that pause, we seem to have kind of gained this energy in a good way. And what does that tell you about the system in place if for us as Indigenous people, that [the pause caused by the pandemic] was a breath of fresh air, that was a way for us to kind of go back to—and it was very instinctual for us. But it was also like coming home in a lot of ways.
AS: In our conversations, you often use the phrase “walking in the footsteps of our grandfathers and our grandmothers.” Can you explain what that means and tell us how it connects to the pause that your community experienced?
MB: Yeah, so another really cool thing about Délįnę is that we’ve had four prophets in our very recent history, and we still listen to their words of wisdom today. Our elders still talk a lot about them and our whole self-government is really founded on the visions and the predictions of our four prophets. One of the big messages that we hear often from our elders and from our prophets is this message of preparing for the future. And one of the main messages for us is that it is our way of life on the land, our connection, who we are as Dene, inherently, that will help us to survive whatever comes, whatever changes happen in the future, that that will always be there for us and that we can never let that go. We can never let go of our language, our land, our way of life on the land, and our spirituality. We can never let that go if we want to have a sustainable future, far into the future. And so, what does that mean then? It means that we have to walk in the footsteps of our grandfathers and our ancestors who’ve come before us, who have been here for hundreds of thousands of years, since time immemorial. We hear that a lot because it’s very true that we’ve been here, and we’ve been here since the beginning. Our ancestors have blazed this trail and they have learned everything there is to know about a particular environment or place. And with those stories and teachings and protocols and through our culture—through that intergenerational knowledge transfer—we’ve been able to sustain our way of life and perfect our connection with our environment. Our ancestors have already broken the trail for us. We have tons of traditional trails all over in and around the lake and the watershed. We have knowledge through our stories, through our elders, about where to harvest, what to harvest when, about relationships, right-relationships and balance with not only each other as human beings but also with the land and the animals. So, this is what we mean when we say we need to walk in the trails of our ancestors again. We quite literally and figuratively need to do that. And in order to understand the stories and the wisdoms that are being passed on to us, we have to actually physically go back to the land, walk the places, see the places that they’ve worked, and also pick up the skills in order to survive and be out there. The only way that we can make that connection is to bring those two things together. And so, for a lot of young people and the new generations, this is a big focus. A lot of young people want to go back to the land and learn and understand and hear the stories and walk the footsteps of their own grandfathers as well.
AS: Are there barriers for youth to learning traditional knowledge?
MB: It’s been difficult because the language and the culture has really kind of hit a steep decline since in-and-around the mid 90s, early 90s. And so that age range struggles with language and the reason why that’s really important is because the elders only speak the language. There are, you know, maybe one or two elders that can communicate in English, but not comfortably. And so, when there is a break between communication, between elders and the youth, how are the youth going to really understand and pick up the language and the spirit in which it’s given? Of course, now we help with translations and things, but I think there is a very soul hurt for youth who are not able to understand the language and the elders.
The promise of self-government in Délįnę and the spirit behind that movement was that we were going to be self-determining, that it was going to give us our right to make decisions about our own future back to us where it belonged, where it should have never been taken to begin with. As it relates to education, self-government means that we’re going to teach our own children what’s important to us, what our values are. And it’s really important that we are teaching our children their way of life, who they are, their identity as Sahtúot’įnę people, and also strengthening their language. But also, the elders have this vision for the youth—they call it this “two roads as one” model where right now we’re walking on two different paths—there is a Western-way and then there is a traditional Dene-way. A lot of our young people are on this Western path and we’ve kind of left this other path. In the future, what they want is those two roads to come together as one so that our young people can walk strongly and confidently in both worlds, both with the traditional way of life, but as well as these Western tools.
A couple of summers ago, we had paddled about 80 kilometers southeast of Délįnę as part of a Guardians and youth leadership training to meet the community at a camp that was set up for Visioning. We wanted the people in the community—leaders, elders, and youth—to come to be with us at this camp so that we could spend time together as Sahtúot’įnę and really talk about what was important to us and what our vision would be, without any interruptions or interference. And so, we set out and for about two and a half days we paddled along the shores of Great Bear Lake. In this time, we really started to understand what was meant by connection, what was meant by phrases like “We are the land, and the land is us.” We understood about humility, about our role as human beings in nature and about respect. So, when we had pulled up to camp, there was really overwhelming, there was a lot of excitement. Some of the elders who welcomed us were brought to tears. And one of the things was that the elders talked about was that we were really misled when we were told that our children had to go to school and be trained in this way to survive. We see now that our young people are more capable and strong than we ever thought they were, that they’re capable of doing this if they wanted to, and we had failed them by believing that they had to assimilate into a different worldview to survive. It’s been a little bit heartbreaking to hear an elder talk about that, because they’re the ones that have seen these changes the most. It was also very hopeful and exciting at the same time, because we had broken away from that and the young people had really displayed something that wasn’t really expected of them in the past. And they had done this because of their own willingness or want or desire or need for that connection, because that was important to us and who we were. So, whether or not we had that traditional upbringing of being born and raised on the land, there was something in us that really showed that this was still alive in us today and that really was hopeful and exciting for the elders that were able to witness it.
That particular trip was really a huge sort of kick start in the work that we started doing with youth. We decided that, in that Visioning camp, we wanted to make space specifically for the youth to come and say what they needed to say. And that’s what happened. The youth came in and mic dropped and peaced out—and we realized that making space for youth was important, but it was so powerful. The young people have such a powerful voice, but their voice is also in line with what the elders have been talking about for a long time. So, this is how our work really with youth and the focus on youth truly began, because we took a lot of the recommendations from that camp started planning our programs around them. And now just a couple of weeks ago, we made history and created the first ever youth council for the Délįnę Got’įnę government. We have a group of really awesome and motivated young people have been selected as leaders by their peers. So that’s really exciting. We really have to take mentoring our young people seriously right now because we have really just a handful of elders left. We have a generation, and the gap is building with language and culture connection. We really have this small window right now to really strengthen and mentor our youth and prepare them for the future, and that means talking about our history, talking about our movements and self-government. But all of these amazing things that we’re doing really won’t have much of a future if our young people aren’t involved right now—if they’re not here shadowing and being part of these movements then how is it going to continue on into the future? A lot of the work that we’re doing right now is really centralizing young people at the heart of things, the heart of what we’re trying to protect and preserve. They really have to be at the center because they have to be the best of us.
AS: Can you talk about some of the specific training and the education programs you’re working on with youth?
MB: There’s a couple of really cool projects that we’ve started to develop with youth in mind. We started a video project when we realized that there were a lot of people in the community that weren’t going on to the land, especially young parents and young people. We decided like, hey, what if we made tutorials? They’re just really quick five-minute tutorials on how to set a hook, and other traditional skills. The project was meant to just be that simple, but now it’s sort of blown up and starting to intersect with other projects. One of the other projects that’s starting to intersect with is a culture camp that’s just behind our office building. We designed and built it as a training camp, like an out on-the-land classroom, but within the community. When we’re spending a lot of time in the land, we’re going out in the summer a lot, but we don’t seem to have that space or that feel of like being out on the land when we’re home. So, we decided to make a camp and we built a 30-foot custom teepee and a bunch of tent frames. And now this is our traditional camp where we teach how to do things like drum making, hide tanning, fish and meat cutting, like all kinds of traditional skills. We bring in mentors and elders and the youth and we have this out-on-the-land classroom, it really became for everybody. People would just show up whenever the fires are lit in the cabins just to drink tea and to eat some good food. What ended up happening was like, wow, these tutorials would actually really be great modules for teaching eventually and now we’re planning to do elder interviews where they talk about certain skills or their life on the land or this idea of prophet messages and why it was important to be prepared, you know, and what does that mean? And so, that’s one of the recommendations that the youth had given us to. They want to get in there! They want to get their hands dirty. They want to learn and they’re ready to do so. We were like, all right, let’s do it! And now what we’re talking about is actually having an actual Bush school, with semesters out on the land where we learn to survive day to day, but also have teachers come in and teach English or Biology or Math, you know, more traditional Western courses. That’s actually how education was introduced to Délįnę in the first place. People like my mother and my uncle and all of that generation lived their life out on the land, in the bush with their families in the traditional territories and these tutors would come in and spend some time with their family learning the way of life, but also in that context, teaching Western education. We have an entire demographic in the community that knows exactly what that was like, how it worked and why it worked. We don’t have to create anything new, we just have to make space for that to happen.
- How did the community of Délįnę respond to the pandemic? How is connection to the land and knowledge of traditional food systems fundamental to the way that the Sahtúot’įnę deal with crises?
- In this interview, Mandy says that the Sahtúot’įnę people must “walk in the footsteps of our grandfathers and our ancestors who’ve come before us, who have been here for hundreds of thousands of years, since time immemorial.” What does this mean to Mandy? How do the Sahtúot’įnę see their Elders and ancestors?
- How is the community of Délįnę engaging with the youth? Why?
- What is a traditional economy? Why is a thriving traditional economy important to the livelihoods and food security of the Sahtúot’įnę?